The Source Magazine had the opportunity to interview “Captain Phillips” star Barkhad Abdi, who plays a somali pirate alongside Tom Hanks. The film comes out this friday.
Q: How’d you get involved with Captain Phillips?
Abdi: They came to my neighborhood. One day I’m just hanging at my friend’s house and it came on TV. It came on the local TV channel that says a Tom Hanks film is casting local Somalians. So I just thought they came too close. So I went there and I tried out and there were…more than 800 people, maybe more. Big crowd, you know. A lot of races, wasn’t just Somalians. They just asked me simple questions like, ‘What’s your name? How old are you? Where were you born?’ I had to answer those three questions one time and on to the next one. So I walked out, they gave me a piece of paper, they said, ‘You are trying out for the Muse character. You memorize these lines, you come back tomorrow.’ The next day I come back and it’s a lesser crowd, it’s in the 40’s-50’s, something like that and now they tell us that we need to be in groups of four to do the audition. You had to have a character of each in your group so they said you can form your own group or they would put us in a group. So right there next to me was three guys that was the closest people to me in there and we’re in the same neighborhood, two of them their brothers were my best friend and the other one I knew him. We just all come there and after we realized we each had different characters we formed our own group. We auditioned the first day and it wasn’t that good. But the second day we got better. We went home and practiced and that’s how we got better the second day. We still had mistakes, so we went home again and we practiced some more and we got better. After we auditioned a few times we got called. We had silence for two weeks. And then I got called by Francine Maisler, the casting director, saying that the director of the film, Paul Greengrass, wants to meet me. That’s when I looked Paul Greengrass up and I found out his movies and I was glad that it was him. So I came to the airport and I saw my friends there and I said, ‘You guys got called, too?! Alright, maybe there’s more auditioning going on then.’ So when we came to L.A. Paul told us that we all have the parts. It was really exciting.
Q: What was it like working with Paul on the movie?
Abdi: It was really great. Paul’s a great director that just takes things easy and just tried to make it as realistic as he can. He works with what he has. He makes the best decisions out of that and he just…let’s go. He tells you what and you don’t have to go by it word by word. Just start and you go with it. When you do it…if you don’t like it then you know he won’t. He’ll tell you you tweak it here and there, but overall…he’ll let you play the role and to just make it as realistic as you can.
Q: What was it about the screenplay that you loved?
Abdi: I loved the whole story actually. It was a really fascinating story that I remember watching it on TV on CNN. I remember seeing it on CNN and it was just an unbelievable story and I saw it unfold. Pirates took over the ship. Then a little later they run away with the captain. The Navy’s involved. Three guys killed. They saved Phillips. One got captured. It had the makings of a great film. It had it all. I was glad to be part of it.
Q: Did you do any sort of research into the piracy situation of Somalia to help you get into the mind of the character and his motivations?
Abdi: Yeah, I did. I did research and there’s not much research besides Youtube. So I watched a lot of Youtube videos, I saw the attitude…how they do it. And I’m a Somalian person, I was born in Somalia, I lived there for about six years. The war happened, and I witnessed all the killing and the raids and whatever else was going on there. I was surprised that I was there for a year. But I was fortunate enough to have parents who took me out. My dad was a teacher in Yemen, so I went to school there and I started a new life in Yemen. And then we won the Visa lottery. By age 14 we came to the U.S.. So I was fortunate enough to have a parent that got me out, but in a lot of ways in the film, a lot of times when I get stuck I would believe that I’m them. I’m the character cause that could have been me. I understand his motives. That’s his only way out. It’s a good thing that he would change his life and he would be something else because it’s an American ship. America’s a wealthy country. He was willing to do whatever he can.
Q: For a majority of the film you’re acting alongside Tom Hanks. Can you talk about that experience working with him?
Abdi: Tom Hanks is a great actor and he was the main reason that I came to the movie. When I first heard it’s a Tom Hanks film…I love Tom Hanks since I watched “Forrest Gump.” I watched all his movies and I think he’s a great actor. It was really an honor, but I didn’t get to see him until the first scene that we did together. So that part was hard because Paul put us to training when we first got there for a month and half. We had to learn how to swim, how to fight, how to skiff. We learned how to use weapons, climbing. We did a lot of training prior to the shooting. When the shooting starts Paul came and said, ‘No you guys are not going to see Tom until the first time you meet on the bridge. So forget it.’ He made sure we didn’t see him, there were people working on that. They were there just to make sure we don’t see Tom…it was really not a very pleasant situation. But looking back at it was really, really a great idea and it made a big difference on the film. That was the same scene that we did the auditioning for. We did the auditioning for that scene so it was like we have to make this scene a very strong scene and why would the director first say they auditioned us for that scene mainly…there was only one more scene, small, maybe it was that scene we were doing the auditioning for. So it was a really big situation. Now we’re not going to see Tom until then. I thought a lot of ways about doing it. I remember I didn’t sleep much that night just thinking about how I’m going to do it, how can I get it right? Whatever plans I made didn’t make sense to me. So I was still nervous when I came to the set that day and Paul told me there that I have to own him. I have to take control. You have took over now, you are in control. I have to know that. So I understand, you know, I became the character and I let go. And then the line comes out, ‘I’m the captain now.’
Q: One of the most impressive scenes in the film is when the pirates attempt to hook their ladder onto the cargo ship and then climb up the ladder onto the ship. Can you talk about the difficulty of working on that scene as well as filming on one of the skiffs?
Abdi: Yeah we did that. We put the ladder on the ship, we did it. But we weren’t allowed to climb the ship right there. There was stunts for that. Paul did not allow it even though one time I wanted to do it and I climbed it and he cut it and he told me to come down.
Q: “Captain Phillips” is your feature film debut. So being on set, working with Paul, the other actors, as a whole what was that experience like?
Abdi: Man it was just an amazing experience. It was something that came out of nowhere. Honestly, I did a lot of hard work and I was really, really blessed to be with the people that I worked with. It was a great cast, great crew, unbelievable director, and Tom Hanks. So I’m very blessed to be a part of this and I’m really glad it turned out this good.
Q: Did you always think about wanting to act at all?
Abdi: You know, I always loved acting but I just thought it was a long road for me and I didn’t fit the criteria so I never tried. But when they came to my city I said now they’re here. I just had to try and I was at that time in my life, you know, there’s a lot of stops that passed me that the only reason it passed me is that I didn’t try. So I made a decision a few years back that I would try anything that I want to do. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get it, as long as I try. That’s all that matters to me.
Q: Do you see yourself acting in more films in the future?
Abdi: I want to. So, I want to give that a shot, yeah.
Q: Aside from just acting in films do you have any other possible projects coming up?
Abdi: I worked with a Somali-American rapper called Yung Yubi and I manage his music and I’m hoping he gets recognized as well. That’s all.